Paradise Found

British author Alexander Stuart exiled himself to South Beach before writing the aptly titled Life on Mars

Not long after the invention of carjacking, alert South Floridians noticed another hit-and-run phenomenon: the advent of the drive-by novel and the home-invasion travelogue. As practiced by such notable out-of-towners as Joan Didion (Miami), T.D. Allman (Miami: City of the Future), and David Rieff (Going to Miami), the nonfiction version of this strong-arm technique involves swooping into Miami International Airport, skimming old newspaper clips, attending a few dinner parties, and then jetting away to write with knowing aplomb the story of Miami's ethnic tensions, its tortuous political history, its crime and corruption problems, its enduring weirdness. During the past decade, intellectual carpetbaggers less talented than Didion, Allman, and Rieff have scoured the Rolex Coast in a perfervid treasure hunt for more and more subtropic exotica. Here there be drag queens, drug dealers, Santeria, hurricanes, would-be Castro-killers, and most recently a chief federal prosecutor who ended his civil service career by biting a topless dancer at a roadside strip joint. What writer could resist, even if the natives wish some would?

British expatriate Alexander Stuart and his new book Life on Mars therefore present a delicious quandary. On the face of it, the tall, unassuming 41-year-old Stuart is the ultimate outsider, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe who washed up on South Beach with all the mannered baggage of his English sensibility and background, and bereft of the two most basic tools of survival in modern South Florida: a command of spoken Spanish and a boat with a good outboard motor. The title of his book is a paean to the otherworldliness of his subject, but also a recognition of his own role as cultural astronaut. Stuart's great counterbalancing strength is this: After doing the swoop into MIA, he took notes for five years before sitting down to write. The resulting 247-page nonfiction exploration of Miami and the Sunshine State is an insightful, celebratory romp through terrain both loved and intimately known to its author. Not since John Rothchild's Up for Grabs, published in 1985, has a journalist written so broadly about Florida, while also managing to tease out the most telling particulars in its tumultuous, hothouse landscape. Like Rothchild, Stuart begins in Miami but ranges north of Lake Okeechobee and south to Havana, exploring the geographic and psychic continuum that begins and ends in our so-called Magic City.

The most appalling thing about Life on Mars is that you may have trouble finding a copy to read. After publication and favorable reviews in Britain (including one in the London Guardian by Carl Hiaasen), American publishers have so far failed to add the book to their lists, seemingly unresolved about whether Americans will want to read a sunburned Brit's account of Sodom South and the greater Florida experience. This is unfortunate because, among other things, Life on Mars is the best recent proof of how much Miami continues to benefit from the fresh perspective of outsiders, just as America has since Alexis de Tocqueville penned Democracy in America in 1835. Stuart reminds us how horrible and wonderful Florida felt when we first arrived, eyes wide open.

"One of the problems the book has had with New York editors is they feel that maybe there's a huge section of the American population that's very resistant to foreigners coming in and commenting on the country," Stuart says. "I met someone just the other night who said, 'You've been here almost six years. I've lived here all my life. What the hell do you know about Florida?' To me that's a totally valid criticism. There's a certain arrogance inherent in writing any book. But I think an outsider often has a really valuable perspective, a freshness."

"It seems to me that foreigners have been commenting on America for a long time, and we've learned a lot from them," says Cathy Steele, manager of Books & Books in Miami Beach. Steele says she sold out of ten copies of Life On Mars in a single day -- a batch imported from England -- but will soon have more on hand. Stuart, doing an experimental end-run around the New York publishing stranglehold, is supplying a few local bookstores, even tinkering with the idea of establishing an 800 number for potential readers.

In October 1990 Alexander Stuart came from Brighton to Miami to do a piece for British GQ magazine on the boxer Nigel Benn, who at the time was training inside the history-drenched Fifth Street Gym (now a parking lot) in preparation for a fight with Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas. After hanging around with Benn, Stuart tried to hammer out the story in his hotel room on deadline. There were multitudinous distractions:

"Men and women in micro skirts, micro shorts and tank tops glide on their rollerblades among the groups of Latinos, Anglos and tourists cruising the sidewalks and cycle-path which runs parallel to the beach," Stuart writes of his first glimpse of Ocean Drive. "Models, hustlers and hangers-on negotiate the common obstacles of any town: a hairy man with an iguana on a leash, a bikini-clad woman draped with a lithe, tongue-flicking python, a drag queen on stilts....

"I press on with work, feeling righteous, feeling moral, dealing swiftly and professionally with the latest problem to arise -- a deafening reggae party alongside the pool below my window -- by switching rooms to the other side of the hotel.

"The only flaw in this arrangement is that the Clevelander, the hotel across the street from my new location, also has a party in progress, this one playing hormone-thrashing white rock and roll, and both events are set to finish, I'm assured when I enquire politely by telephone, at around four a.m."

Brits have an irrational faith in their pugilists, so it came as a shock to Stuart and his editors when the second-rate Benn got clobbered in a preliminary bout against Chris Eubank, lost the World Boxing Organization middleweight crown, and never got his five-million-dollar Vegas rendezvous with the Motor City Cobra. The magazine article fell apart, and Stuart, sensing a bigger and better story, joined the moveable feast outside his window at a time when Ocean Drive was just beginning its trajectory toward international stardom. He never left.

Initially, Stuart's failure to exit Florida was simple inertia. He arrived on U.S. soil an emotional shipwreck. Behind him in England lay a successful career as a screenwriter and novelist that included Tribes, a book about British soccer hooliganism, and The War Zone, a dark portrait of incest that both won and lost England's prestigious Whitbread Prize. (Hours after announcing that The War Zone had won, Whitbread judges scandalously reversed themselves, sparking a much-publicized debate over the value of literary prizes generally, while at the same time boosting book sales.) During the Eighties Stuart was executive producer of Insignificance, a film featuring Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, and Theresa Russell, and he wrote Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence, starring Faye Dunaway. Behind him also lay the protracted illness and death from cancer of his five-year-old son, and his ensuing breakup with the child's mother.

"On the professional front, I was flying high, but on the personal front, I was grieving, definitely," Stuart recalls. "There were nights even after a couple years when I would wake up and lie on the floor and cry. I tried to embrace the sadness. Rather than pretend to be happy, I would put on Mozart's Requiem and try to experience it."

At the exact moment when Stuart needed a land of lotus eaters, he had stumbled across the next best thing: the world capital of second chances.

"I think I met him at one of [local novelist] Brian Antoni's parties," says Tom Austin, features editor for Ocean Drive magazine and poet laureate of the South Beach nightclub scene. "He was an odd figure. We were both older guys, middle-age guys bouncing around in this very young milieu. It's very different from the London club scene. In England, it's so much layers of hypocrisy and pretense and vestiges of the class system. South Beach is a great place to escape, and that's what he was doing. His personal situation was so horrible you can't even contemplate it, and he found a very seductive world here. He loves advanced music, post-techno stuff. I used to see him at raves, which were torture to me; he would be there dancing around, loving it. I don't think there's ever been a book that goes as far into South Beach as his does."

Stuart says: "The first year I was here I mostly went to the Island Club, which used to be on Washington Avenue, and that was largely because the first time I ever went in there I became friendly with the manager, and she introduced me to other friends and we did things together.

"Later there was a period when I got really into techno-clubs and there was one I would go to on Ocean Drive called Mayday. I knew between maybe 30 and 50 people there, not necessarily well, but I knew them. Again, I sort of felt welcomed. Having lost the core of my own family, I think there was an element of trying to find a new family, a casual family. As well as just losing myself in the music."

Life on Mars begins by chronicling the ultrahip social scene and tracing South Beach's physical transmogrification from deck chair ghetto to American Riviera. Stuart attends the eviction party at the Amsterdam that precedes Gianni Versace's refurbishment of the old hotel into a $12 million playpen. He notes the arrival of Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Luciano Pavarotti, Chris Blackwell, and Ian Schrager, but builds his narrative around the anonymous players who populate the ragged fringes of celebrity. Soon he finds himself suspended in a floating world of hard-core club kids, runaways, and part-time drug dealers, most of them less than half his age. If the prospect of a middle-age English gentleman roaming around in a car full of adolescent girls and LSD makes you queasy, you'll become downright terrified when Stuart finds himself sniffing Freon in a Kendall apartment:

"The bag makes its way around the assembled group and reaches Raoul last. It is sagging a little now, so when Raoul brings it to his mouth he sucks deep ... deeper ... and again. There is a big 'Aaaaauuuh!' sound as he takes his last breath and holds it, keeping his lips shut in a happy grin.

"But next as I watch him, sitting there on the floor in the centre of the room, his eyes roll up, so that his brown irises are barely visible, his lips turn an ugly blue colour and a dark stain appears on his shorts where he has pissed himself.

"He remains sitting in this position for a moment, then simply collapses sideways onto the floor, drooling at the mouth, the dark stain on his shorts growing larger. Everyone laughs, but it occurs to me that this boy whom I've only just met may be about to die in front of me, and I get up and go over to him to try to sit him back up."

How about dialing 911! the reader wants to shriek. But Stuart isn't here to save souls or moralize. And in the end, instead of reaching the predictable and sanctimonious conclusion that his teenybopper cohorts comprise a lost generation, he winds up admiring their resilience, and finds a convincing optimism at the heart of their thrill-seeking.

"What draws me to them, I think, is what has always drawn people to America: a dream of beginning -- in my case, of beginning again," he writes. "I find them mostly easier to relate to than the Americans I know in their late twenties and thirties, whose optimism takes on a depressingly materialistic edge....

"Sometimes it seems as if a whole generation of adults has fallen apart and its children are trying to pick up the pieces. Mostly they do pretty well: they show more courtesy and respect than many of the adults around them; they have values of their own which they cling to."

As Dara Friedman, a long-time friend of Stuart who appears in the book, notes: "Here he is, he's forty years old hanging out with fifteen-year-old runaways and doing drugs and listening to their music -- he's complicit. He describes it and he's thoroughly accepting of it. It's an extended piece of journalism, but it's not American journalism. He's not necessarily drawing moral conclusions."

Stuart is happily at home with the ambivalence, contradiction, and bizarre paradoxes of life in Florida -- astonishing natural beauty subsisting in the midst of grotesque swaths of "development"; a mermaid at Weeki Wachee spring who dismantles her own mystique by explaining how not to "butt-kick" when you wear a mermaid costume; the blurry gender lines of the club scene; the absence, in prosperously nonindustrial Dade County, of any visible economic means of support beyond real estate, the drug trade, banking, and tourism; the odd, recurrent thesis that Miami is a "spiritual" place capable of inspiring inner peace in the midst of carnality, commerce, and hedonism. Stuart lets his true-life characters draw the conclusions, and if they sometimes talk too much, one forgives them for it.

The pseudonymous John Hood, a Yale-educated nightclub bouncer and con man, pops up in his fedora throughout the book: "Miami's history is purely that of the carpetbagger or the criminal," he asserts. "Selling swampland. It's the grifter. I think it's the first city to be founded upon the merits and the true definition of grifting. And it was the first city where the class of the grifter was less important than his talent. A good grifter, be he blue-blood or barbaric, can make it.

" I think making money down here and having great ideas are sure to succeed. But they rank in a dubious realm compared to surviving with your spine intact. Down here I feel it's real easy to trance yourself out and wake up in the morning and dump yourself in the cleansing waters of South Beach. I think it's the last best place for decadence. You could swallow a jellyfish, step on a bottle, have unsafe sex and, after an eight-ball evening, still feel like, 'Well, I'm OK! I've got a tan!'"

Stuart: "I like paradox and contradiction. Or it's not so much a question of liking them, it's who I am. What I like about here is that the paradoxes and contradictions are so bizarre, the obvious one being Disney World. You go there and you're in the middle of this agricultural land, and okay, maybe it's not the most beautiful landscape in the world, but it's nature. Then you have this extraordinary plastic palace. In some ways it could be ugly, but in other ways it's beautiful. The Florida Keys are like that. I'm sure there are people who say, 'You have these beautiful islands, and building the roads and bridges to some degree destroyed the natural beauty.' Now to me there's a majesty of engineering there that in itself is quite spectacular. Driving over the Seven Mile Bridge is almost like flying, it's really an incredible experience. The old railroad bridge, which was partly knocked out in the 1935 hurricane, adds even more beauty; it's not a blot on the landscape, it makes the Keys that much more extraordinary."

Stuart's refusal to draw moral conclusions is apparent once more when he turns his highly personal and episodic story toward Miami's alter ego, Havana. After noting his bias to be that of a nominal socialist sympathizer, and acknowledging the catalogue of faults attributable to Castro's dictatorship, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Graham Greene territory, refreshingly unconstrained by the usual anti-communist orthodoxy Miamians have come to accept as political Muzak. The fact that the first of two journeys to Cuba (one in 1990, one in 1994) is largely a treasure hunt for cheap grass and underground nightclubs is either hilarious or a snoozer depending on your literary and personal taste.

Stuart has a habit of picking the most obtuse and seemingly superficial features of the landscape and then actively rediscovering their significance. In the hands of a lesser writer this technique would often fall flat, and sometimes it does in Life on Mars. Stuart points out that "you could die in Palm Beach and not know it," and then spends seven pages proving the point. His travels through Arcadia and the nearby sugar country are little more than perfunctory jibes at north Florida's hardscrabble trailer trash.

In a different way, the author fails when he tries to use Disney World as a prism through which to clarify the American dream. It's an old aesthetic chestnut, and Stuart says he probably wouldn't try it again if given the chance. The episode at "Mousechwitz" owes too much to the stylistic innovations of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and is hampered, ironically, by Stuart's having thought a lot in advance about his target. Generally, the author's approach to his subject matter is consciously unstudied: "I never actually sat down in the library or at a computer and accessed the books that had already been written about Miami," he explains. "I think I was afraid of being too influenced by something else, or too analytical. Once I was here I found that reading about here wasn't something I wanted to do. I found that I didn't want my response to the place to be affected too much.

"When I first wanted to make films -- I was fourteen or thirteen -- the very first serious eight millimeter film that I made at home was a ten-minute biography of Walt Disney," Stuart says. "From that time onwards I read a great deal about Disney himself. Like everyone else, I grew up on Disney films, and I loved some Disney films enormously. The Jungle Book I think is a wonderful movie; I loved Snow White; I loved Pinocchio, Fantasia, some of the animal films. But then as I grew older I learned about Disney's record in labor relations, which is not exactly shining; and also, as much as you can judge these things, I think maybe, yeah, Disney has had too great an impact on some aspects of the culture.

"How the hell to write about Disney World? There are these teenage graduation nights where everybody loads up on acid or whatever and they have this strange all-night thing at Disney World. I had heard this story, probably a myth, about some kids pushing a Donald Duck figure into a lake and drowning him. I just don't know how you write about the place. Disney World is kind of one of those things that's just there; it's almost beyond analysis. It's some people's favorite chapter, and I'm really surprised because I don't feel that it's one of the most successful parts of the book."

Things pick up again when Stuart hits Gibsonton, better known as Carnie Town, where he passes an amazing afternoon at the Showtown Lounge and Package Store interviewing Pepe Arturo, son of the legendary high wire artist the Great Arturo. The book kicks into high gear back in Miami where Stuart surfs through the defining moment of the city's present decade -- Hurricane Andrew -- and rides shotgun with a police officer in Overtown, unintentionally witnessing his first homicide. (Positive proof of the writer's infectious gentility and kindness comes when Stuart describes a big fat cop as "a large, not entirely athletic individual.") Stuart finds an eerie link to railroad tycoon Henry Flagler and other early Florida pioneer millionaires in the person of local arts patron Mitchell Wolfson, with whom the author caroms through the Miami nightscape in search of pleasures both sensual and intellectual. Stuart had noticed Wolfson's private railroad car at the Miami Amtrak station, and months later had the opportunity to interview its owner.

"Micky [Wolfson] seemed to me like such an unexpected aspect of Florida, a Henry James kind of figure," Stuart says. "He seemed to be the opposite of the obvious gas station-shopping mall culture of America. A lot of Europeans have a very simplistic view of America. They think that America is just Kojak and Miami Vice and things they see in the movies. Micky, to a degree, represents the sort of extraordinary refinement that's here also. He's a very intelligent man. He has the kind of classical education that very few of us are getting any more. He has this enormous energy and this sort of little-boy-in-a-toy-shop quality, a mischievous side. And he's chosen to do some very interesting things with his money, including the choice to live here."

Perhaps the most poignant image Stuart confers upon the reader is the one he discovers at dawn in Key West during his final road trip. Next to a boat ramp on a tiny patch of sand, a young architecture student is building an astonishing sand castle, "a Gaudi-like palace of crenelated towers and terraces, intricate bridges and domes, which seem to defy gravity." To Stuart, working to rebuild his own life far from home, it seems "the clearest image of Florida you could have -- of transience and rebirth. The Overseas Railroad. BOOM! Build again. Hurricane Andrew. BOOM! Build again."

These days, Stuart seems to be hitting the big time once more. A few weeks ago, wooed by Hollywood hotshots, he flew to Los Angeles. While sitting in a producer's office with Kiefer Sutherland cinching a deal to write a screenplay adaption of a book called Among the Thugs, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was actor and would-be director Tim Roth, who asked Stuart to write a script of his own book The War Zone. Stuart has lately completed the latter project and begun the former. In his spare time, he's writing a story for the London Times Sunday magazine, researching a novel set in post-World War I England, and preparing to teach a film course this fall at the University of Miami. The other night he turned on his shortwave radio and heard the BBC do a rave review of Life on Mars, introduced by the soundtrack to Miami Vice.

"He's got a terrific voice and a great ear for dialogue, and really some insightful observations," says Matthew Levy, vice president of Stillwater Productions, a Los Angeles film company. "I'm about a hundred pages into Life on Mars. It's basically a very well-written account of a stranger in a strange land, which is the same sort of thing we're trying to do with Among the Thugs. It seems like a universal theme, one man's observation of a foreign land. I can't imagine why the book hasn't been published in America."

"It's a great examination by an outsider of a peculiar and very sexy city," says Paul Chung, Stuart's representative at the Lantz-Harris Literary Agency in New York. "Everybody's in love with his writing, but I think some American publishers aren't sure about an outsider commenting on their home turf. They look at him as a Brit, and that's what seems to be setting him apart from these other books that have been written about Miami and Florida. It's unfortunate.

"Several of the major trade houses here in New York are looking at the book now, and I'm confident I'll be able to sell it. It's a compelling read and a very thorough, intricate piece of journalism. I think it's an important book. Miami is a phenomenon -- socially, politically, architecturally, and in many other ways -- and I think Alexander has captured that."

Stuart says he'll probably keep writing about Florida for foreign publications. But a sore spot has appeared, a paradox that besets all those lingering too long under the palms. "One of the problems I have now, actually, is I know Florida and America well enough that I don't necessarily notice immediately the things they want me to pick up on and write about," he says. "It's harder for me now. Friends come from Europe and comment on things, and I realize they don't even seem strange to me any more. Have I gone native? I think there's an element of that.

"Someone recently asked me: Why are you here, if you're not going out to clubs any more? I thought about it but I'm not sure I know the answer. I'll be lying in the grass sometimes listening to Mozart or jungle music or whatever, and I could be anywhere, but I like being here. Even I don't know why. More than anything else, I love the beach. If I'm feeling sort of tense or depressed or whatever, all I have to do is get on my bike, I usually go get a cafe con leche at this little place on Eleventh Street and go down to the beach. That's it. It really chills me out. I take a book sometimes and sit on the wall and read. It's like sanity. I like all the distractions, the music from the cafes across the street, the Rollerbladers. Then sometimes there aren't any distractions. If you go there when it's raining it's also really beautiful. I love swimming in the sea and seeing pelicans fly over."

The sculptor Mark Handforth, one of Stuart's few English friends in Miami, adds: "To me Miami seemed like the most random place I could possibly go after London. I got a thrill telling my friends that I was coming here. By virtue of being so far away from culture with a capital C, it opens up a world of opportunity. Alexander wanted to get a breath of fresh air. You can do that here and no one's going to stop you. That's part of what his book's about.

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